Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru was rapturously received as guest conductor for this brilliantly original and eclectic programme with the Hallé. The most modern and least familiar of the evening’s music came first, in the form of Michael Gandolfi’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation of 2004. The two-movement, eight-minute work takes its name and inspiration from a large private garden near Dumfries, which in turn is inspired by assorted aspects of physics in varying degrees of literalness. The more abstract first movement moved with a remarkably Sibelian fluidity and pulsation, with rhythmic precision in the percussion section offering flashes of light amongst admirably well-controlled pianissimo playing in the woodwind and trumpets.

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa

The second movement is a fairly literal representation of a soliton wave, that which maintains its own form while joining or influencing others. Măcelaru created waves which flew around the stage to great effect, with sextuplet figures frequently bringing to mind the waves of the finale of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. A sense of spatial separation and personal immersion in the music was much aided by the clarity of the counterpoint in the strings. This was a compelling performance which made a strong case for the work’s more frequent appearance in concert programmes.

Francis Poulenc’s Gloria is similarly quirky. The composer famously remarked that his inspiration was taken from football-playing monks and frescoes of angels with their tongues sticking out. As he later would in Berlioz, Măcelaru enjoyed and emphasised all of Poulenc’s eccentricities, but here also paid close attention to the greater span of the work, creating a sense of spaciousness in the outer movements especially. The opening Gloria featured some flashingly bright horn playing, in sharp contrast to their busily jocular figures of the Laudamus te.

Louise Alder made for a sweet-sounding and sensitive soprano soloist in the heart of the work, where she found a pleasingly fluid tone and fine control of large interval leaps even at quiet dynamics. The chorus and orchestra, for their part, were receptive and responsive accompanists, and the former produced several stirring moments of their own at both ends of the work. The final Qui sedes, evoked in a huge swell of unison singing, brought a very fine end to the performance.

A bold and original account of Berlioz’s ever-popular Symphonie fantastique was the highlight of the evening. The capriciousness and curiosities of the quirky orchestral writing were richly enjoyed in all corners of the stage, indulged by Măcelaru but with a firm hand steering the music away from overly exaggerated or distorted climaxed. After a tender and delicate introduction, led by Julian Plummer as acting Principal Horn, the exposition of the Allegro grew in confidence from humble initial statement of the idée fixe to swaggering confidence by the repeat. Later on there were pleasing glimpses of underlying tension and uneasy self-doubt in some carefully-phrased woodwind playing, before a riotous climax of the movement.

The second movement waltz and subsequent pastoral scene were altogether more sophisticated. In the waltz there was some exceptionally elegant string playing, capped by a fine obbligato cornet solo. The Scène aux champs was pleasantly bucolic, particularly affecting in the pianissimo clarinet solo above feathery string pizzicato.

The March to the Scaffold was a grim, rather than a wild, affair. Between the bold timpani perorations, the descending cello figures were attached with brilliantly crisp attack. Măcelaru drove the tension of the execution upwards into a huge conclusion before pushing on quickly into the Witches’ Sabbath epilogue. The opening scene of this was relatively bold and full in sound, highlighting the eerie woodwind effects, chief of which was the most brilliantly wild Eb clarinet solo. Similarly, the Dies irae passage enjoyed vigorous and gutsy tuba playing while the distant church bell rang from offstage. After a huge strophe at the beginning of the Sabbath rondo, the energy grew constantly into a thrilling conclusion, both aurally and visually spectacular in the orchestra’s enjoyment of the music.